Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Thinking About Christmas...

So, I had originally planned to write a post this week explaining Advent--similar to my post around Easter called Holy Week Explained. However, what I really want to talk about in terms of Christmas has changed a little bit over the course of the week. So, if y'all are still really interested in all the symbolism of Advent, I can do that. But for now, things are taking a bit of a different spin. Here goes...

Lately, on TV, the internet, and occasionally even in person, I'm hearing a lot of frustration from fellow believers about Christmas. Almost every day, I receive a Facebook request for a group called something to the effect of "Put CHRIST back in Christmas!" I hear Bill O'Reilly ranting and raving about the "secularization of Christmas." And as a Christian, I completely understand wanting our family to focus on the birth of Christ during this time. However, sometimes I also think about the message that Christians as a whole are giving to those who celebrate Christmas as a secular, rather than a religious holiday. Sometimes I worry that we come across as being rather hostile--'Give us OUR holiday back!' or 'People who celebrate Christmas and don't believe in Jesus are idiots!'

Much like Dan Merchant discussed in his book "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers", I would venture to guess that not too many non-believers feel loved on by Christians during the holiday season. I would venture to guess that some of them probably feel a pretty hostile response when they say that they don't go to church on Christmas Day, or that they believe Christmas is nothing more than a government sponsored economy boost. As a Christian, I strive to act and respond to others in such a way that they never experience hatred or hostility from me...only compassion and love. Because really, Jesus's message was one of love. I'm not perfect, and I don't always succeed at this, but I do try to be mindful of it.

Here's something that I didn't know until my first term in college--that both Christmas and Advent are symbolic celebrations. The Bible does not give us the actual date that Jesus was born, and it's pretty well accepted within both the religious and academic communities that in all likelihood, Jesus' birth was not on Dec 25th (read more about this here). Rather, early believers chose to remember his birth on that day for a few reasons. First, Dec 25th coincides with several pagan and secular celebrations, which allowed early believers to remember Jesus' birth without having to worry about being persecuted for their beliefs. Second, as more people came to believe and the persecution of Christians died down, the early church felt that it would be easier to substitute an "immoral secular" holiday with a "moral" one, rather than to eliminate a holiday altogether and schedule a new one (Augustine makes reference to this idea in his sermons).

So, "Christmas" was the religious significance that the church gave to a holiday that was originally secular, though known by another name at the time. Now, both the secular and religious celebrations have come to be known as "Christmas". And yes, the name "Christmas" does come from the name that those celebrating the birth of Jesus gave the day. However, many of the traditions that we continue to associate as part of the religious aspects of Christmas, like Christmas trees, are carried over from the secular holiday that pre-dated the religious holiday. Call it what you'd like, December 25th has long-since been a date that shared both secular and religious significance. And that's okay.

While I choose to celebrate Christmas for it's religious significance to me, I think it's important for us as Christians to remember that there has long-since been a secular significance to Christmas. And the secular celebration of Christmas doesn't in any way jeopardize the religious significance that we as Christians attribute to December 25th. Neither does the separation of church and state, which prevents state institutions from publically recognizing the religious aspect of Christmas.

Rather, the topic of religious vs. secular Christmas celebrations provides a great opportunity for us to have a dialogue with others about our beliefs regarding Christmas (while also allowing others to share their own beliefs regarding the day). Advent and Christmas are a particularly approrpiate time for this because as we remember Christ's initial coming into the flesh, it is a great opportunity for us also to remember and share that we do not need to be perfect people to come to Jesus--he has already come for us and will continue to come to us in the midst of absolutely any circumstance. There is no sin too great. No matter how broken we are or how much we've sinned when we turn to Jesus, he accepts us with open arms and tells us that he has already come to pay for our sins and that we've already been forgiven. What a comfort and blessing!

So, in my humble opinion, I think it's important for us to remember the historical significance of Christmas, and that it is and was both a religious and secular holiday. And rather than be angry and upset about that, let's use the opportunity to have a dialogue about our beliefs about Christmas and what it symbolizes. But in order to convey Jesus's Gospel of Love, we MUST do so lovingly and with respect.


  1. Great post. There's something to be said for the fact that giving was always a part of Christmas, too - whether Christ was born on the 25th or not, the 3 Wisemen each brought a gift, St. Nicholas (feast day we celebrate in the Catholic Church in December) gave to children in need. I have no problem with giving for Christmas, I do have a problem with the gimmes and greed during Christmas, and think we need to remember what the season is about. And, if a celebrant is not religious, at least remember why we give to others.

  2. A wonderfully written post! I think that the part I struggle with the most, is not the fact that most companies do not approve of the phrase "merry christmas" at all! It is not my intention to insult people by wishing them a merry christmas, just as I am not insulted when fellow jewish coworkers might wish me happy/merry-whatever the holiday is that they are currently celebrating/recognizing that I do not celebrate.(I purposefully am not naming just one as they have so many holidays and feast/fast days between October-December) I think that it's wrong to force orgnaizations (such as fire stations) to take down signs that say merry christmas. Most firestations are volunteer, if there's an emergency, are we going to say, no I don't want that fire station to come assist/resuce me because they have a merry christmas sign up? I think there is a line and that our governement continually crosses the line in this area. We should all be entitled to celebrate our own religious holidays without others being offended, as long as it is peaceful and not causing physical harm to individuals

  3. This is a GREAT post, Meredith. And I couldn't agree more.

  4. How many Nativity scenes do you see with the 3 wise guys bearing gifts to the baby Jesus? Truth is they didn't show up until almost 2 years later, so it's doubtful they were anywhere near the manger where Christ was born. Everytime the story is told, it gets a new twist as writers, retailers, believers and non-belivers put their own twist on this story to make it easier to understand or digest.

  5. Congrats, you get the atheist stamp of approval. Cuz I know you wanted one. :)

  6. wonderful, thoughtful and important post, Mer!

  7. You KNEW I was going to like it Meredith. Thanks for being a part of the CONVERSATION. A little compassion and understanding goes a long way, doesn't it. Merry, er, Christmas - Dan

  8. This was an awesome post! I never read it until now. You should be proud of this one! I might even vote for this one to be your most beautiful post...

  9. I found your blog from a house blogging link and then saw your "top posts" post which led me to this one.

    I have to admit that as an atheist I started reading with much skepticism - I thought this was going to be another "why are you stealing my religious freedom!" post that one sees every December 1.

    Instead I found a wonderfully inclusive post that gives credence for the holiday (as we all know it today) to both Christianity and Paganism (now if only we could get people to understand that pagans do not equal devil worshipers).

    I come from a deeply religious family and so often find myself incredibly frustrated because the people who are screaming the loudest about this topic very rarely know the history behind the holiday. Thank you for taking the time to post and share this with your readers.

    I wanted to add that not all atheists hate "Merry Christmas." Like the chest beating evangelicals I know, it's the bullhorn carrying atheists that have contributed most loudly to this debate. If someone wants to wish me Peace on Earth, I'll take it ... because peace on Earth would be really great right about now. If someone smiles and sends me warm wishes, I'll take that too. It's all about the spirit in which it's intended and for the most part, holiday greetings are usually passed on in kindness, not in politics.

    Finally, I want to also say that not all atheists view Christmas as a Hallmark holiday or merely a reason to give presents. For us, it's a time of year (not so much the exact day) to reflect on what you have, what we're thankful for, what we'd like to achieve in the coming year, and most importantly to slow down and spend quality time with our loved ones.


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